13 May 2022

‘I would sleep, and my sleep be sweet.
For when I am far from you –
my life is death’

Plaza de Juda Levi in Córdoba recalls the Spanish Jewish doctor, poet and philosopher, Judah Halevi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I have had a few difficult days and nights in Dublin and Askeaton, packing things that need to be moved and wondering how I can leave behind so many things, particularly a large number of books.

Books are memories, and memories bring the past to life. Books are guides to the present. And books offer hope and vision for the future.

I am on my back to Stony Stratford tonight, and looking forward to a more relaxing weekend than the week that is past.

But, as I contemplate rest and sleep this Friday night, and look forward to the weekend that is ahead, as I think of the past few days and nights and some of the feelings of weakness and loneliness in recent days, I am reflecting on words I found in one of the books I have been packing.

In a remarkable prayer for the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the Spanish Jewish doctor, poet and philosopher, Rabbi Judah Halevi (ca 1085-1141) gave poignant expression to his yearnings and frustrations in a cry of spiritual despair.

The most poignant section of the prayer for divine aid comes at the beginning. Here Yehuda Halevi confesses his consummate desire for God’s grace, and decides that life without God is like death:

O Lord! All my desire is toward you,
even if it does not rise to speech.
Grant me your favour a mere moment –
and I would die.
Please grant my wish, and I will commit
my spirit to your keeping.
I would sleep, and my sleep be sweet.
For when I am far from you –
my life is death;
And were I to cleave to you –
my death would be life!
But I don’t know what to do,
what I should bring you in service.

Judah Halevi also wrote several Sabbath hymns. One of the most beautiful of them ends with the words:

On Friday doth my cup o’erflow
What blissful rest the night shall know
When, in thine arms, my toil and woe
Are all forgot, Sabbath my love!
’Tis dusk, with sudden light, distilled
From one sweet face, the world is filled;
The tumult of my heart is stilled
For thou art come, Sabbath my love!
Bring fruits and wine and sing a gladsome lay,
Cry, ‘Come in peace, O restful Seventh day!’

Shabbat Shalom

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